Note: I first wrote this review in 2009 when I first started reviewing books at Goodreads. It was a brief review simply for the fact I read the novel in the late 90s and the details were not as vivid at the time. Now, thanks to the release of the film in 2014 and the re-release of Cold in July by Tachyon Publications, I was encouraged to read it again. The first part of this review are my first thoughts in 2010 followed by my new assessment.
This hard-nosed thriller by Joe R. Lansdale is easy to dismiss as a pulp fiction suspense novel and nothing more. Yet the author is actually writing a haunting character study about fatherhood and all the problems it entail. This is the genius of Lansdale. He writes thrillers that can be read for pure entertainment yet at the end you are thinking twice about what you read and what it means. And, as usual, he never pulls punches. While not as riveting as the Hap and Leonard novels, Cold in July is still very memorable. (written in 2009)
With the movie Cold in July coming out in May of 2014, I decided to reread this suspense novel written by Joe R. Lansdale. It didn't hurt my decision when Tachyon Publications, through Netgalley, offered me a review copy as their release of the book coincides with the release of the film. It's been over 15 years since I read it and my original review (above) for Goodreads was on spot but without much detail. On the second read, I must say it was as good as I remembered and better. But I may have been flippant when I referred to it as pulp fiction. Cold in July is certainly within the tradition of pulp mysteries and, more precisely, crime fiction. It is also firmly in Lansdale's typical East Texas setting full of blue collar families and characters from the more dubious sides of life. Yet Lansdale has hit a literary note in this novel as he uses the plot and themes to explore father-son relationships. In that way, this novel may be one of his most subtle and maybe even more personal.
Considering Lansdale's novels are full of tough and eccentric characters, Richard Dane is fairly mundane. He lives with his wife and son in a small Texas town and owns a picture framing shop. One night he hears an intrusion into his home and ends up shooting the burglar in self defense. He is uncomfortable about the notoriety he receives and feels guilty despite the fact it was self defense. Soon Russel, the father of the man he killed, has just got out of prison only to find his boy is dead. He places himself into Richard's life in the most sinister way. "A life for a life" as he puts it.
So now we have a typical story about a man placed in a dangerous situation and protecting his family. But Lansdale is never typical. As the story developed, Richard discovers something have makes him and Russel uncomfortable allies. It's a beautiful if suspenseful buildup to this point and Lansdale makes it work. One of those reasons is that Russel is old enough to be Richard's father and Richard's actual father killed himself when he was young. That made sound strange saying that there exist emotional connections between Richard and the man who wants to kill his family but it's that sort of thing that makes this such a emotionally satisfying book. The loss of a son. The loss of a father. The fear of losing youe child in death or sometimes in other ways than death. These are the themes that drive this excellent story. And no one tells a story better than Lansdale.
Lansdale's grit and wits is evident throughout. Halfway through we meet a private investigator that is one of the more colorful characters the author has created and, of course, has some of the best lines. Richard's wife lends a different kind of protective spirit to the book. She in realistic and provides a bit of grounding to Richard's odd quest which she fears will destroy the family. It's that quest that becomes the only weak, if minor, link in this novel. Even with Russel's background, it is hard to accept he would make the decision he does and even harder that Richard would go along with it. Yet Lansdale have built up the delicate rapport each has with the other so well that it does not become an insurmountable leap and certainly does not slow down this exquisite thriller.
So I have to say I enjoyed this book more on the second read and, maybe because of my own older age, felt closer for the relationship and the emotions of these men. I originally gave this book four stars but now I would increase it to five. It's a crime fiction classic.